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Here’s five things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. Believe it or not, the most telling aspect of Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden’s Monday press conference did not even involve Tampa Bay’s quarterback question, quandary, conundrum or crisis – whatever you wish to call it. I asked Gruden why the team did not use running back Charlie Garner more against the Seahawks. In hindsight, Garner had just 13 carries for 75 yards, including a big, tackle-breaking, spinning run for 25 yards, and averaged a whopping 5.8 yards per carry.
“The thing is when Charlie comes out in games, at times he gets tired,” Gruden said. “We are [also] using him as a receiver. He is not a 225- or 240-pound back. There is no question we would like to get him the ball as many times as we can. When you look back on it, there are a couple of plays where maybe we should have given it (the ball) to him again. However, when you look at the outcome of a lot of these plays on the coaches’ tapes, we had opportunities to convert and make some things happen. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out again yesterday.”
I must admit I was a bit stunned to hear that Garner was tired after only 13 carries. To be fair, the Bucs’ starting running back also had six catches for 24 yards – so he did have 19 touches against the Seahawks. Garner also had just 11 carries for 25 yards at Washington in the season opener.
I really expected Garner to receive more carries as the Bucs’ primary ballcarrier. But after doing some research I found out that the workload he received at Washington and against Seattle was right in line with his career averages. He averaged 16 carries per game in 2000 when he rushed for 1,142 yards on a career-high 258 carries while scoring a career-best seven rushing touchdowns in his last season in San Francisco.
In 2001, his lone season in Oakland under Gruden, Garner had 211 carries for 839 yards, averaging just 13 carries per game. He also caught a then-career-high 68 passes for 647 yards. The next season, Garner led the Raiders to the Super Bowl with 962 yards rushing and seven touchdowns on just 182 carries (averaging 11 carries per game) while catching a personal-best 91 passes for 941 yards with four scores.
The good thing is that the 32-year old Garner has shown he can be very productive in a limited fashion carrying the ball on offense. The bad news is that his 5-foot-10, 190-pound frame won’t allow him to average 20 carries per game. Imagine how productive he would be then.
A player such as Duce Staley, whom the Bucs were courting in free agency before he ultimately signed with Pittsburgh, may have the frame to handle the workload as a primary ballcarrier, but Gruden has always favored a running-back-by-committee approach. The fact that Garner has averaged no more than 16 carries per season makes him a perfect fit for this offense. A back like Staley may gripe and become a malcontent with limited touches, but Garner has always split carries wherever he has been, whether it was in Philadelphia, San Francisco or Oakland, and is used to that approach.
FAB 2. Aside from a lack of consistent good play along the offensive line, the thing that is hurting the Bucs running game right now is that other members of “the committee” are letting the team down when Charlie Garner isn’t on the field. Halfback Jamel White has rushed for an unacceptable minus-5 yards on four carries this year. White has been indecisive when reading his blocks and has done too much dancing in the backfield when he has the ball.
He also hasn’t made much of an impact as a receiver, catching two passes for four yards. When Garner heads to the sideline for a breather, Tampa Bay essentially doesn’t have a running game.
Some Bucs fans may have thought Gruden was joking when they heard him say that the team has missed Michael Pittman, who is currently serving a three-game suspension for his well-publicized domestic dispute, but it’s true. While the 212-pound Pittman hasn’t become the elite rusher the team had hoped he would become when he signed with Tampa Bay in 2002, he has proven that he is a better runner and receiver than White.
In fact, the Bucs must make a roster move to allow Pittman back on the team. Don’t be surprised if he in fact replaces White on the roster.
Gruden is eager for Pittman’s return. While he is not a gifted runner, Pittman is effective toting the pigskin, and is a real weapon as a receiver out of the backfield or split out wide. Gruden also plans to use his “Rocket” personnel package, which features both Garner and Pittman in the backfield at the same time.
This package helps put more speed on the field for Tampa Bay’s offense. Bucs fans saw the “Rocket” backfield last year on occasion with Pittman and Thomas Jones.
One last note on the Bucs’ running game. For whatever reason, Gruden refuses to use Mike Alstott as a running back in the early stages of the game. Bucs fans just need to accept that. In Gruden’s eyes, Alstott is strictly a fullback and he does not have the style or body type to be a halfback in his offense.
Gruden prefers to give the “A-Train” the ball in short yardage and goal line situations, in addition to the fourth quarter when the Bucs have the lead. Unfortunately, the Bucs haven’t had a lead of any kind since going up on Houston 7-0 in the first quarter against Houston on December 14, 2003, a game in which Tampa Bay won 16-3. That was the Bucs’ last victory.
Maybe Alstott hasn’t earned the right to carry the football more, either. He didn’t light it up in the preseason, and in his six rushing attempts during the regular season, Alstott has just 11 yards (1.8 average) to show for it. Still, a quick survey of some of Tampa Bay’s offensive linemen suggests that they enjoy blocking for him the best in the team’s two-tight end set.
But while Alstott is being phased out of the offense, averaging just five touches per game this year, he has still been a producer on third downs. Of the Bucs’ seven third down conversions out of 28 attempts, which is a shameful 25 percent, four of the seven have been converted by the “A-Train.”
FAB 3. Brad Johnson gets the start in Oakland. Great move by head coach Jon Gruden. Having coached the Raiders for four years (1998-2001), he knows how intimidating and hostile The Black Hole at McAfee Coliseum can be. That’s no place for Chris Simms to start his first NFL game. Johnson, the experienced veteran, gives the Bucs the best chance to win against the Raiders’ revamped 3-4 defense led by coordinator Rob Ryan.
However, Johnson is on a short leash, and rightfully so. Don’t be surprised to see Simms against Oakland at the first sign of trouble. But with all of the hype and circumstance around this nationally televised Sunday night contest on ESPN, Gruden is wise to have Simms avoid the pressure of the week leading up to starting a game in the national spotlight. Now coming off the bench in the second quarter again … there’s not as much pressure in that.
As Pewter Report managing editor Jim Flynn pointed out in his PewterReport.com notebook on Monday, Johnson has thrown four touchdowns and nine interceptions over the past four games dating back to the 2003 season, and has yet to find the end zone in 2004. Johnson’s cautious, conservative approach is not what this touchdown-less offense needs right now. He must be careful to avoid interceptions, but must also be more daring with his throws. His favorite, high percentage, stat-padding pass, the dump off in the flat, must be complimented by more downfield passes, such as his 20-yard completion to Michael Clayton against Seattle.
Remember that the quarterback in the West Coast offense has to be the playmaker, not the caretaker that he was in the Tony Dungy era. Johnson had 41 opportunities to pass the ball (37 pass attempts and four times sacked while attempting to throw) against the Redskins and hardly made any plays. Granted, his touchdown pass to Joey Galloway was dropped in the end zone, but a quarterback in Gruden’s offense has to take more than one shot into the end zone.
Johnson presided over four series in the Seattle game, two of which ended in three-and-outs and another one ending with an interception. Gruden was right to pull Johnson and pull the trigger on Simms when he did. Gruden was also right to give Johnson another chance to keep his starting spot this week. But when the Bucs head coach said he wanted to spark his team offensively on Sunday, he also meant he wanted to spark Johnson.
FAB 4. So what will it take for Chris Simms to be the starting quarterback in Tampa Bay? A lot and a little. I’ll explain.
First, with this being a veteran-laden team, Jon Gruden can’t justify a permanent quarterback switch unless he has the evidence to support a change. In other words, he has to be able to go to his team with enough game film and statistics that actually shows his players that Johnson isn’t getting the job done in games. That way, they can’t accuse Gruden of shooting from his hip or just trying to rush the young Simms into the starting lineup. As the old saying goes, the film doesn’t lie.
He also has to give the veterans a good reason to accept a permanent quarterback change. If Simms had beaten Seattle or at least gotten the ball into the end zone once or twice, a better case could have been made to the players. Gruden knows that Johnson hasn’t lost his job yet, and Simms hasn’t won it, either. That’s another reason why Johnson gets the start in Oakland on Sunday.
Now remember, I said that it will take a lot and a little for Simms to become the starting quarterback. Getting the game film evidence is “a lot.” The fact that Simms will be this team’s starting quarterback in 2005 is the “little” reason. Johnson will be 37 next year and his salary cap value skyrockets from $6.8 million this year to $8.5 million in 2005. His base salary jumps from $1.75 million to $5.75 million. If the Bucs were to cut Johnson next year he would save the team just over $5 million.
With Simms progressing so well in his two preseasons with Tampa Bay, the Bucs also have to get this kid on the field on Sundays to fully gauge his value. The former third-round draft pick out of Texas will be a restricted free agent at the end of the 2005 season and the Bucs will have to give him a new deal.
You saw general manager Bruce Allen let expensive, aging veteran John Lynch go so that the cheap, promising, young safety Jermaine Phillips get on the field this year. Through two games, it’s apparent that Phillips will be a star. Allen will have to use the same thought premise with Simms next year. Of course, it would be helpful to Simms and the organization if he got as much playing experience as possible this year. That’s why a quarterback change would be easy to justify. Perhaps not as easy to a veteran locker room, but certainly easy for the Bucs’ front office.
FAB 5. Here’s a couple of items to hold you over until next week:
• Here’s an early prediction. Fullback Mike Alstott will not return to the team in 2005. The reasons are two-fold. First, he is unhappy with the way Gruden is using him as a traditional fullback instead of a ballcarrier. Alstott is not a Lorenzo Neal-type blocker in the running game, and even smaller backs such as Warrick Dunn and Charlie Garner are better in pass protection because they are willing to sacrifice their body and take on a defender. Alstott has already surrendered two sacks which led to fumbles this year. Against Washington, the 260-pound “A-Train” tried to chip 200-pound blitzing safety Matt Bowen. Bowen got around him, sacked Brad Johnson and forced a fumble. Against Seattle, Alstott cut block defensive end Grant Wistrom, but didn’t finish the block. Wistrom quickly sprung to his feet, sacked Chris Simms from behind and stripped him of the ball – all while Alstott was still on the ground. The second reason why Alstott won’t be here next year is the salary cap. Alstott will be in the final year of a contract that is supposed to pay him $2 million in base salary next year. By cutting him, the Bucs will actually save that $2 million and take a small cap hit of $725,000.
• The loss of receivers Joey Galloway and Joe Jurevicius hurts the Bucs offense not just from an experience standpoint, but also from a formation standpoint. Both Galloway and Jurevicius play the “X” receiver position, or split end. The most productive receivers through two games, rookie Michael Clayton (13 catches for 114 yards) and Tim Brown (11 catches for 72 yards), both play the “Z” receiver spot, otherwise known as the flanker. While the “Z” is the featured receiver in Jon Gruden’s system, the offense is a bit unbalanced and lopsided with inexperienced players like Charles Lee and Frank Murphy manning the split end spot until either Galloway or Jurevicius returns.
• Don’t call rookie Michael Clayton a wide receiver. He’s a football player. Clayton showed real heart in hustling 41 yards downfield to tackle Seattle cornerback Marcus Trufant, who picked off Brad Johnson’s pass intended for Tampa Bay’s first-round pick. That play was almost as impressive as his leaping 20-yard grab in the first quarter. Now you know why the Bucs were so high on this kid on draft day.
• Tampa Bay’s defense has been playing outstanding through the first two games of the season, surrendering an average of just 13 points per game and holding opponents to a conversion rate of just 22.6 percent on third downs (7-of-31). Under tackle Anthony “Booger” McFarland, who has 13 tackles this year, may have played the best game of his career against Seattle with two sacks on third down. But the player that has really caught my eye is middle linebacker Shelton Quarles, who leads the Bucs with 23 tackles (12 solo) and also has a sack and two pass breakups. It appears that Quarles has regained his Pro Bowl form from two years ago.
• Despite two muffed punts in two games, Bill Schroeder will still be a factor on punt returns. He will continue to split duties with Tim Brown. But Frank Murphy and Corey Ivy have also been practicing catching punts in practice. Don’t be surprised if Murphy, who is doing a great job on kick returns with a 26.9-yard average, gets an opportunity to field punts for the first time in a game very soon.
• Want to know what play the Bucs were going to run on the third-and-goal situation on the Seattle 1 when quarterback Chris Simms fumbled the ball off his knee after the snap? A fullback dive – but not to Mike Alstott. Alstott was the halfback on that play. The ball was supposed to go to fullback Greg Comella with Alstott being a decoy. That’s why Comella was back there falling on the ball with Simms. He was supposed to get the ball and when he didn’t he knew that the ball must have been fumbled.
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